Religion & Liberty Online

Are More Black Men in Jail Than in College?

In 2002, the Justice Policy Institute released the report “Cellblocks or Classrooms” in which they claimed, “Nearly a third more African-American men are incarcerated than in higher education.”

Since the report was issued a broad range of people—from NBA star Charles Barkley to President Barack Obama—have repeated the claim. But as Howard University professor Ivory A. Toldson explains, the statistic is based on inaccurate and incomplete data: “Today there are approximately 600,000 more black men in college than in jail, and the best research evidence suggests that the line was never true to begin with.”


Tollefson says the increase in black male college enrollment over the past 10 years is due to three primary factors: “1. IPEDS more precisely tracking enrollment (artificial gains), 2. social advancements (authentic gains) and 3. the rise of community and for-profit colleges (authentic gains).”

The top 10 colleges for enrolling black males consist of three for-profit colleges, four community colleges and three public four-year institutions. The University of Phoenix online campus reported 847 black male students in 2001 and 21,802 in 2011, making it the nation’s top enroller of black male students. Second is Ashford University, which reported 23 black males in 2001 and 15,081 in 2011.

Importantly, black male representation in higher education is proportional to black male representation in the adult population. However, lack of adequate guidance and academic rigor in high schools has resulted in black males being underrepresented at competitive universities like Rutgers and overrepresented at community colleges and online universities.

Tollefson raises an important consideration for those of us who care about social mobility and economic advancement:

Consider this: If all 1,127,170 black males who were enrolled in undergraduate programs in 2010 eventually graduated, the total number of black males with college degrees would increase by 71 percent, nearly achieving parity with white males. However, we will not sufficiently support black male college students — nor college-bound students — if we simply keep perpetuating the myth that juxtaposes their needs with those of black males in the criminal-justice system.

As Anthony Bradley recently wrote, “We need to think more deeply about what it means to be human and how we can put people in positions, in accordance with their design by their Creator, to live well. In other words, we need to focus our attention on human flourishing.” For many Americans graduating from college is one of the essential achievements that provides opportunities for such flourishing. Helping young men reach that goal should be a higher priority for a broad range of organizations—from individual churches to national campus ministries—that have the ability to better serve black male college students. But all Christians have a responsibility to love and help improve the lives of our African-American brothers. Whether they are in a jail cell or in a college classroom, they deserve to live in accordance with their design by their Creator.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).